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My search for a suitable column topic this week was aided by my own version of "Mr. Geeghan's rule." Our now-legendary high school chemistry teacher told us that any time we were stumped by a chemistry question, we should give the answer: "Van der Waals forces." In years writing columns, I have learned a parallel that has served me well: Whenever stumped for a topic, write about sports.
In this case, the tie-in is the attention surrounding the baseball playoffs in America. CNN reports that an employment firm in the US has estimated that the series will end up costing hundreds of millions of dollars in lost productivity. If the games are during work hours, employees may sneak a few minutes to watch the game; otherwise they are busy talking about it or tired from staying up late to watch.
What are the ethics of baseball in the workplace?
This is one of the most common questions I receive: Exactly where do we draw the line between legitimate private needs and stealing the employer's time?
In general, the attitude toward private use of employer time and resources has become more lenient over time. The Talmud takes a very strict approach. In one place it tells the story of the righteous sage Abba Chilkia who was approached during his field work by special emissaries from the leading Torah academy. Abba Chilkia refused even to greet them, explaining afterward that it would be wrong for him to steal even a moment of the employer's time. And in another place the Talmud forbids moonlighting, explaining that the employee is obliged to arrive for work with adequate energy.
But in the 21st century these strict principles don't seem to serve employers well. At the beginning of the Internet revolution, a few major employers tried to enforce no-private-use rules in the workplace, but many discovered that it cost them more in worker resentment than it gained them in worker productivity. My impression is that few firms today completely forbid private use. Some very influential groups have recommended that employees be allowed some use of the Net, just as employers allow workers a "reasonable amount of personal calls" on the telephone.
The most important principles here are clarity and example. It is critical that employers give clear guidelines. These can be time-oriented, for example 10 minutes a day. Or they may be functionally oriented: Permitted use is making doctors' appointments and checking baseball scores (for example). Otherwise, the least scrupulous employees will spend far more than "reasonable" amounts of time on the Net, and the most scrupulous ones may be overly cautious and perhaps resentful. (What kind of monitoring is effective and ethical is a separate question beyond the scope of today's column.)
The other principle is example. It goes without saying that the boss shouldn't be a negative example. Many articles single out supervisor abuses as a primary obstacle to good enforcement; workers see their boss making personal use of the Internet, visiting inappropriate sites, etc. and this sets the tone for the entire workplace.
But that doesn't mean the boss has to go to the other extreme either. Sometimes employees can be put at ease by a good example of measured good humor in the workplace. If you have an employee who is playoff-crazy, consider taking a minute or two but no more to ask him about those tough Red Sox. Then remind yourself and your employee that it's time to get back to work.
America's employers will not succeed in keeping the playoffs out of the workplace. But setting good ground rules and a good, balanced example will help them keep the phenomenon under control while maintaining good morale in the office.
The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (www.besr.org), an independent institute located in the Jerusalem College of Technology. He is also a rabbi.
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